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The Role of the Archivist

By 8th May 2019May 28th, 2019Articles

When you walk through the doors of your local history museum you may not think of all the different people it takes to make your museum experience possible. From curators and educators, to social media experts and security staff, a museum requires a complete ecosystem to function properly. One of the primary roles in the museum is that of the archivist:

The Old Court House Museum, one of the locations for the DLHM archives

Anarchists and archivists may sound very similar, but one would hope that they are exact opposites! While anarchists crave chaos, archivists are all about order, arranging collections so that they’re properly indexed and easily accessible.

Archivists work with specific forms of records, such as photographs, film clips, audio recordings, architectural documents, diaries, letters and other manuscripts and publications. Museum archivists study the purpose of these records, taking their historical background and the contexts under which they were created, into account when trying to find links to similar sources in the organising of their collections.

Ship list: Durban Archives Repository, North Indian ship register

In addition to organising records so that databases are easy to search, archivists might also authenticate and appraise historical documents and materials, source new materials for their archives, digitise records and strategise disaster recovery plans. Some archivists will also be involved in the coordination of educational and public outreach programmes, such as tours and workshops.

So what does it take to be an archivist? Ideally, an archivist should hold a bachelor’s degree in library science or archival science, but degrees in subjects such as history, art or science may also be acceptable, depending on the specific area of archival work someone is considering entering into. Because museum archivists need to be able to provide a narrative about, and contextualisation of, the artefacts, strong written and oral communication skills will also stand you in good stead. In the case of Durban Local History Museums it goes without saying that a passion for history is a must!

The South African Society of Archivists (SASA) is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. In July SASA will be hosting its annual conference in Kempton Park, Johannesburg, with this year’s theme being Archives & Records: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow – Celebrating a Diamond Jubilee”. For further information visit

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